I don’t know what possessed me to hire a photographer to take a new headshot the week after my birthday. Maybe it had to do with my being optimistic about my promotion cycle. Or pessimistic about my promotion cycle. Or a result of the daily mortification of seeing my eight year old headshot pop up every time I paused my video on zoom.

Don’t get me wrong. The photo was flattering. My colleague Stacey kindly took it for me 8 years ago because I had nothing appropriate to accompany a shout out in American Theatre Magazine. Hey, I’m a production manager and a college professor. We don’t generally have photos taken. And this photo has stood me in good stead between then and now.

But suddenly, it was no longer adequate. The winter of my discontent began innocuously enough during one of my Sunday morning WhatsApp chats with my college besties, Bob and Susan. We started our weekly chats (about an hour) sometime in late spring 2020: me in Los Angeles, Bob in New York, and Susan in Cape Town. We chose 7AM PDT/10AM EDT/5PM SAST and after a few weeks, our calls were clocking in at 2 hours every week, a respite from our isolation, a restorative reconnection, a chance to chuckle or commiserate about the previous week’s events. The calls got longer because we needed time to assess our wattles, the bags under our eyes, our graying hair, and the sallow skin of pandemic isolation. And I hurry to say that that is the royal our because I am the eldest of the three and my dearies were pleased to allow me that time to self-depricate. Lest you think we don’t talk about weightier topics like the recent death knells to the demise of democracy, we do. But there’s just a little time spent on the cosmetics of…change, shall we say.

Last week, Bob blurted out “Can I say something? Those glasses are too big for your face.” I could see Susan in the upper left window of the WhatsApp call gesticulating wildly but wordlessly, “NOOOOOOOO! Not the glasses, Bob!” But it was too late, the words were spoken, my infatuation with my groovy shades shattered. We’ve laughed at least a dozen times since then about his “gaff.” Really, if your besties can’t tell you important things like that, why do you have besties?

It didn’t take long for me to take action, reaching out not to the optometrist which would have made sense, but to one of my colleagues, Julian Jqn who I knew supplemented his teaching and acting with photography. We made a date for the following Monday morning at 9:30, to meet in my neighborhood’s park to take some shots. “Bring a few coats and your favorite sweaters.” Hmmm. I don’t have any favorite sweaters, but I did have my favorite coat, a wool watch plaid coat I’d bought for myself on my last birthday. It has a lovely wattle-masking collar. I met Julian on the street near the park; he grabbed his equipment from his car. He looked a little furtive as he pulled the light, tripod, and umbrella out and we walked into the park. We found a spot under a pergola draped in bougainvillea, and I removed my mask, Julian assembling his camera and beginning to snap away. The great thing about working with an actor/photographer is the prompts. I won’t give away his professional secrets, but he put me at ease instantly, my nerves settling as I assumed the unfamiliar role of subject.

Soon enough, I realized why he’d looked furtive, the park’s security guard striding over and asking us if we had a permit. No, we answered, packing up and leaving the park. We crossed the street and entered my building to use the pool level. (again, sans permit). However, this time, we accomplished what we needed to, rather quickly, and Julian left. Several days later, he shared the pictures with me.

We all look in the mirror every day. We see the passage of the years across our faces. I see the ravages of time, my impatience with skin care regimes, manifesting in the crinkling of the skin below my eyes, the furrows in my brow, the graying at my temples. But that’s a moving target while we brush our teeth or comb our hair. Infinitesimal changes don’t register in our awareness. But there’s something about seeing a professional photo of you that captures you static in time, bug in amber, allowing for acute self examination. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been doing work based on the Positive Intelligence practice of Shirzad Chamine, and one of his tools is to imagine how your older wiser sage self would reflect on an event that you might now be struggling with. This is a liberating and leveling perspective. It’s hard to look at a minor disruption as much of a ripple in the fabric of time when viewed backwards from your metaphoric rocker on the porch. Looking at the photos Julian had taken, I realized, “I am already my wiser, older self. This is what she looks like.” And I was suddenly content, a state that has stayed with me since Wednesday.

It was with that sudden infusion of sage strength that I tackled the technological challenges of the week. My cable/internet provider asked whether I wanted to upgrade to a speedier modem? Of course! Who wouldn’t? What they didn’t tell me was that the existing modem/router would be replaced only with a modem, leaving me with no way to get internet for my phone or laptop at home. After a frustrating 20 minutes or so on the phone with the company’s representative, I ordered the new router to do the job. When that arrived, I hooked up everything and got it all working, save for my 10 year old HP printer, which neither repeated reboots of nor the ministrations of the IT squad could convince to connect with the new router. A quick trip to the store rectified that with a printer half the height and 10 times the speed of the old printer.

Where did the minimalist go?

She’s still here, working on sorting out the books. Finally after a week or so’s back and forth with Emerson College, I worked out a donation of a box of titles to send to Boston, which I did. I’ve catalogued the rest of the books and put an offer out to USC’s Theatre librarian. We’ll see if that takes or not. Halfway through examining/clearing the guest bedroom bookshelf, I fell onto the bed with a heavy tome of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder’s correspondence from the 1930s. I dove into the text, which was beautifully annotated with footnotes detailing the friends they each referred to and the circumstances of why Stein was visiting Wilder, etc. An amazing compendium of the intersection of the lives of both of those artists. I found myself looking for the insouciant dada flavor of her poetry in Stein’s letters, the dramatic structure in Wilder’s back to her. Suddenly I sat bolt up on the bed.

What was I doing getting rid of these books? To what end? I sat quietly for a moment and thought about the vast research potential for this collection of books, I thought about Jimmie reading them in the living room, and getting wiser and more imbued with theatrical history than even his own experience had done for him. I also had noted that many of the books early pages were pinned by the book jacket’s front flap; was that an indicator that Jimmie hadn’t really read them all the way through? Or had I picked them up after he finished, started them and given up twenty pages in? That sounded more likely, and as I thought about that rocker on the porch, the time I know I will one day have to delve into the books I want to read, began again to go through the titles with my interests at heart. My future research. My theatrical curiosity. I went back to the box I was currently filling with books, easily removing several of the titles and putting them back up on the shelf. Gertrude and Thornton. For later.

This morning, as I chatted with Bob and Susan, we talked about our missing spouses’ (fill in the blank) stuff, how we accumulate things from loved ones when we die, often generations of things that they have also accumulated from their parents and partners. I looked at the beautiful copy of The Great Gatsby my Dad had given me, which when I opened, had his name and Trumball College inscribed on the flyleaf of the book. I had called it the frontispiece, but discovered from this helpful website the error of my terminology. This book I will always treasure not just because I’ve always loved The Great Gatsby in every iteration (except the most recent film starring Leo DiCaprio), but also because I can imagine my Dad on the beginning of his educational journey and his life, an awkward teenager from a small town in Southwestern PA, the first from his public high school to attend Yale, marking proudly on that flyleaf his name and the name of his college. Books have that power when you cradle them in your palms. If you ever want to connect with a parent over books, I recommend Will Schwalbe’s powerful book The End of Your Life Bookclub.

Bob shared that many of the books in his possession were not only his dearly departed partner’s but their neighbor’s and their neighbor’s ex’s books, the latter being a student of philosophy. Like me, Bob tried to imagine which books would command his attention in more idle times later in our lives when we achieve sage hood. We decided as a group that it would be okay to pitch the Plutarch (with apologies to any classicists following along). Bob, I exhort you to first watch this ten-minute video, Why Study Plutarch, before ridding your shelves of this work.

My goal would be for these books which were so loved by my talented actor husband to fall open into the unlined hands of a young student of acting or directing who might revere the words of an actress like Zoe Caldwell, after stumbling upon the pocket-sized book “I want to be Cleopatra: An Actress’s Journey,” or Peter Fonda’s “Don’t Tell Dad.”

Perhaps I will be able to make this donation to USC. It’s especially hard now where conditions prevent students from actually going to the Library at all to peruse the shelves packed with titles. With librarians working from home, even the hand off of these books seems problematic. If I don’t get to give these titles new homes, and any of you are interested in reading any autobiographies or biographies of actors of primarily Jimmie’s era i.e., 1950s-2010, let me know and I can probably arrange to ship one or two to you if you’ll agree to pay the postage. I also have a small collection of baseball books that might call to you.

In the meantime, the perfect challenge arose on Facebook in light of my recent photoshoot. #thenandnowchallenge. In the summer of 1983, I asked a friend in Venice to take some headshots for me before I moved back to the States, with the express intention of becoming an actress. Ah youth: there appears to have been nothing, nada, zilch going on in that placid unlined face. I wish I could remember what the prompt was for that look. Clearly I didn’t remember Benjamin Zander’s Rule #6 in this photo.

11 thoughts

  1. Loved your organizational skills Yes Gatsby My innocence protected me from making errors and getting some maiden pregnant! Love Dad

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Love this, Els; I still have some of my beloved Grandma Dorothy’s treasured books – important signposts on my life’s roadmap. BTW, I’ll take the Caldwell and Fonda if no one else has spoken for them. Nix on the Plutarch, though. (Does that make me bad?) And – Annie Abbott, whom I met through Annie Korzen, years ago. Wow.

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